Conceptual Concerns with Google Glass

Google continues to expand its public R&D effort for Project Glass, recently announcing a call for developers to become part of the early program.  While many tech adopters are becoming downright giddy towards Google Glass, I have a number of reservations about the product, but more importantly the larger implications of how technology evolution will impact society. 

In a Google+ post advertising the Glass developer program, Google wrote, "[w]e’re developing new technology that is designed to be unobtrusive and liberating, and so far we’ve only scratched the surface of the true potential of Glass.

On its surface, that brief description sounds promising. Who wouldn’t want to be liberated by additional technology, all the while still feeling secure and in a weird way; human?  Of course, in its current form, Google Glass doesn’t come close to those accolades as wearing a computer on one’s face doesn’t exactly seem like an advancement for less obtrusive technology. 

As smartphone and tablet proliferation continues, the limitations surrounding tech gadgets is becoming clear. With iPhone in hand, potential is unlimited as the ability to capture the surrounding world, all the while harnessing the web through curated user interfaces (apps), proves to be quite an attractive proposition.  However, once a user is away from their phone (or tablet), the gadget’s usefulness is hard to measure.  The preceding situation demonstrates a major inefficiency in hardware; physical dependency, which time will eventually dissolve as society moves towards a gadgetless world (don’t worry there’s still time to enjoy phones and tablets). 

There are tangible signs that the world is already entering a new phase of mobile computing; wearable technology.  At what may come as a surprise, Nike (via Nike+ FuelBand) and Disney (via MagicBand) seem to be leading the wearable technology army having announced inexpensive (or in Disney’s situation, free) wearable computing products. Of course, one could argue that such focused applications don’t go beyond niche needs or uses, but for that matter, wearable technology, like any disruptive force, will begin with niche uses. Add in Google Glass, and circulating iWatch/iBand rumors, and it becomes clear that the mobile computing industry may be ready to move. 

In its current concept, Google Glass represents the key risk to the next phase of computing; letting technology control society while reducing user optionality. While the ability to take a picture or video of anything, at any time, through a camera near my eye may sound appealing, society can do exactly that now with a phone, which could then be easily put away and ignored. If the resulting argument is “just take off the Google Glasses then”, the added benefit of having such a device is then questioned. Early supporters of the device reiterate that Project Glass is just getting started and the possibilities are endless. While that statement may be true, it lacks the justification for why the initial product should deserve endless praise simply for being introduced. I’m sure other companies could release products that seem cool for a few hours only to discover major conceptual concerns. 

Google isn’t shy in portraying Google Glass as a way to improve one’s quality of life through access to information. Having to wear a computer on one’s face doesn’t ring as some kind of industrial design breakthrough, especially compared to a simple bracelet or watch which could serve many functions by just being casually worn; hidden away under clothing. Technology can then truly melt away into the background. Having an endless amount of information at one’s disposable is not guaranteed to be a benefit and if handled incorrectly, which many companies are doing now, negative consequences are born. 

Where is Project Glass headed? Judging from Google’s videos, the Project Glass team will initially try to find niche uses for Google Glass, including recreational airplane pilots, skydiving schools, taxi drivers, and circus acts.  Of course, each one of those niches raises serious concerns if glasses would even be practical (and safe) in those scenarios, but that’s besides the point. Google has plenty of talent dedicated to Project Glass, which may very well open future doors for the initiative. Criticisms surrounding price and practicality for visually impaired users are somewhat misplaced as those two criteria could probably be solved somewhat easily and quickly. More importantly, Project Glass will give Google data about mobile and wearable computing; data that Nike has already been collecting, and which Disney will soon be. (It’s debatable how valuable such data is to a company. Wall Street loves it, but that’s hardly a ringing endorsement.)

While some are in a rush to applaud Google for publicly airing its R&D and introducing new products for the sake of introducing new products, it’s important to remember that tech companies don’t just sell products, but also values. For wearable computing to become a formidable force, a company’s values and beliefs will prove to be more important than the device itself. Technology has the ability to ruin society through excess noise and information. While some companies hold that fear close to heart, others seem content to usher in that doomsday scenario.